LUMBERTON — A motion to dismiss convictions against two men imprisoned for the 1983 rape and murder of a Red Springs girl points the finger at another man who is also incarcerated for a rape and murder in the same town.
The motion, filed at the Robeson County courthouse on Tuesday, asks that convictions against 50-year-old Henry Lee McCollum and 46-year-old Leon Brown be dismissed and that they be released from prison immediately. Put forth by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and lawyers representing the men, the motion is expected to be heard in Robeson County Superior Court next week.
McCollum is currently on death row for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, and Brown is serving a life sentence for her rape. Brown was originally on death row for her murder, but a second trial cleared him of that charge.
According to the motion, tests results from LabCorp show that DNA on a cigarette butt found near Buie’s body matched DNA belonging to Roscoe Artis, a 74-year-old currently serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl in Red Springs about a month after Buie’s death.
According to the motion, none of the physical evidence found at the scene — including a stick used to stuff Buie’s underwear down her throat until she suffocated, match sticks and beer cans — can be linked to Brown, McCollum or two other men implicated by confessions they gave police in 1983. Little physical evidence was presented in McCollum and Brown’s original 1984 trials, or their subsequent retrials in 1991 and 1992. A rape kit collected after the crime did not trace back to any suspects.
Artis was wanted for the rape and murder of a girl in Gaston County when he moved to Red Springs in 1983, and had a record of assault stretching back to 1957. According to the motion, he lived “within feet” of where Buie’s body was found in a soybean field off of Richardson Street.
When Joann Brockman went missing on Oct. 22, 1983, witnesses told investigators they had seen her with Artis. Artis confessed that night to police and helped lead them to her body, which showed evidence of being bludgeoned with a large stick, the motion said. Artis later testified that he had not volunteered the statement, but was convicted in August 1984.
While serving time, Artis spoke often with a former death row inmate named Andrew “Sonny” Craig. According to an affidavit from Craig included in the motion, Artis had told him McCollum and Brown were not involved in Buie’s death and relayed details about that crime scene.
“During my time with Mr. Artis, he seemed burdened by living with guilt for so long,” Craig said in the affidavit. According to the motion, Craig knew Artis before his incarceration and met McCollum at Central Prison in Raleigh. Brown was originally confined in Central Prison and has since been transferred to Maury Correctional Institution. Artis is being held at Warren Correctional Institution.
The motion suggests Artis nearly became a suspect in Buie’s case and claims evidence of his involvement was ignored by investigators.
According to the motion, the Red Springs Police Department on Oct. 5, 1984, requested that the State Bureau of Investigation compare fingerprints lifted from the scene of Buie’s murder with Artis’. According to the motion, “there is no documentation reflecting that the comparison was carried out,” and exactly one year later, the request was canceled.
McCollum and Brown’s lawyers are arguing that the prosecution suppressed evidence favorable to the defense. The motion cites a box of evidence from the case found at the Red Springs Police Department years after it had been asked to turn over all related material. The box was found by the associate director of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent body which carried out the 2010 request by Brown to run DNA tests.
“Based on these due process violations alone,” the motion says, “Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown are entitled to have their convictions vacated.”
Furthermore, the lawyers allege, the confessions that were the basis of the men’s conviction on Oct. 25, 1984, were coerced.
McCollum was one of many people interviewed after Buie’s body was found. On Sept. 28, the motion says, he was brought in and questioned by two agents with the State Bureau of Investigation, Ken Snead and Leroy Allen, and then sheriff’s deputy Kenneth Sealey.
“Over four hours, Agents Snead and Allen and Deputy Sealey used the detailed information they already had about the case to prompt one confession from Mr. McCollum and a second more detailed confession which Agent Snead reduced to writing,” the motion said.
McCollum signed the confession and helped draw a map of the crime scene. Later that night, Brown signed a similar confession. The handwritten statements are included in the motion, which says recordings were not made of the confessions.
“In the end it took little effort for Agents Snead and Allen and Deputy Sealey to persuade intellectually-disabled 19-year-old Mr. McCollum to sign and initial a confession with a promise that he could leave,” the motion said.
Throughout their trials, McCollom and Brown were deemed “intellectually disabled.” The results of IQ tests conducted on Brown, who was 15 at the time, were widely cited, along with estimates of his reading comprehension and mental age. In 1995, McCollum challenged his conviction, arguing, among other things, that mental retardation made him unfit to stand trial. Brown at the time was the youngest person to receive the death penalty.
“After 30 years in prison for a crime they did not commit,” the motion said, “the only fair remedy is Mr. McCollum’s and Mr. Brown’s discharge based on evidence of their innocence.
The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday.